by R.J. Blain
(The Fox Witch, #1)
Publication date: November 3rd 2020
@XpressoTours, @Archaeolibrary, @RJ_Blain,
Death is a way of life outside of the safety of Inner Tulsa, and Jade means to keep flipping Mother Nature off until old age claims her. With one eye always on the sky, the last thing she needs is a pack of bounty hunters out for her living head. With no idea of why anyone would want her, her wits might keep her free, assuming she can resist the charming lures of Sandro, one of the men out to claim her as his own. Left with the choice of being the evening snack of a tornado or taking shelter with the bounty hunter, she does what she does best: she lives on the edge. Striking a bargain with the handsome bounty hunter buys her another day of life, but it also dumps her into the heart of a sinister plot, one meant to enslave the residents of the storm-tossed city—and the others brave and foolish enough to call the Alley home.
Friday, May 1, 2043.
I’d been in the Alley long enough to understand only one thing mattered when faced with yet another twister: survival. The swarm of them headed for Tulsa roared, warning all of their impending arrival. The incessant crash of thunder accompanied the lightning, which struck with such frequency the dark clouds glowed white. I decided to stop counting after five funnels; one, five, ten—it didn’t matter how many of them snaked down from the sky. If one of them got a hold of me, I’d just be another corpse strewn over the Alley. A day didn’t go by when I didn’t cross a new skeleton in the outskirts.
Death was a way of life outside of the safety of Inner Tulsa.
Another twister joined the party, bringing a cascade of hail with it.
Great. Just great. What was one more? Hadn’t Mother Nature figured out she didn’t need to fling everything she had at Tulsa? A single tornado would’ve done the job just fine.
A few minutes too late to do me any good, the lightning-lit clouds turned a putrid shade of green, a promise that Mother Nature wasn’t screwing around this time. Green meant go, and if I’d had any sense in my head at all, I wouldn’t have left shelter at sunrise; I would’ve stayed in hiding until right before work. Everything would’ve been different if I’d just slept in rather than explore the ruins of Tulsa’s outskirts for salvage.
If I hadn’t been looking for salvage, I wouldn’t have been spotted by the tall, dark, and handsome hot on my heels and determined to ruin my day if he caught up with me.
The swarm would cause me enough problems, but if the bounty hunter caught me, I’d be in worse shape.
Some choices in life were tough, and I hated myself for even contemplating taking my chances with the bounty hunter. Losing my freedom for profit could be reversed.
Nothing could reverse death.
I flattened my ears, and I lashed my tail back and forth, the rain whipping off it. While I was part fox, I’d adopted more feline tendencies than canine ones. And according to the tail and ears I couldn’t banish with any amount of magic, I was definitely a cat trapped in a partly canine body.
I could shift into a full fox, a secret I held close to my chest. The instant anyone learned the truth, I’d go from a common annoyance to a desirable. Nobody cared about powerless hybrids.
Everybody wanted full shapeshifters in their bloodlines, and I had enough trouble without every wealthy single man on the planet wanting to claim me as his wife.
Since six twisters wasn’t enough, the churning clouds spawned two more, and with unerring accuracy, they surged towards the city in a wall of churning wind, rain, and hail.
Tornado season had come, and it looked like it was going to open with a bang.
I skidded around a corner of a destroyed home, a victim of a twister a few months back, before the sky had opted to give us a break for a change. Shacks had sprouted like persistent little weeds, but I expected none of them would survive the storm. I worried for their inhabitants, but if they had half a brain, they’d take shelter in a cellar.
If they didn’t, they’d add to the bodies littering the dying suburban streets.
While I had the advantage of knowledge, the bounty hunter had me beat everywhere else, and he snagged the back of my shirt, yanked hard enough to cut off my breath, and slammed me into the broken brick of the trashed house. “Are you insane?” he screamed over the wind. “You’re not supposed to run towards tornadoes, you little idiot!”
I blinked, checked where I’d been running, and sure enough, Mother Nature had truly tired of my shit, opting to dump another handful of twisters directly into my path. When the twisters converged, probably where we were standing, it’d puree the neighborhood and leave matchsticks in their wake.
Stuck between a rock, a hard place, and a bounty hunter, I had few options if I wanted to keep my head long enough to figure out if death beat being picked up by some fortune seeker. Fortunately, the sensible had left the area anticipating the weather to sour, leaving their storm cellars open for my use—our use, as I wouldn’t leave him behind despite wishing I could ditch him.
Sometimes, I really questioned why I tried to meet society’s standards of being a good person. Being a good person was a pain in the ass.
As Mother Nature was a bitch on a mission of destruction, the twisters barreled our way. I cursed myself, cursed the hunk of a bounty hunter making a mess of my morning, and cursed my choice of moving to the Alley in the first place. “There’s a cellar nearby.” I pointed down the street in the general direction of my favorite bolt hole, which I’d have to abandon once I shared it with the man out to profit from my head—my living head, at least.
The bounty hunters wanting my living head in their possession was looking to be the bright part of my morning.
“Go,” he ordered, giving me a shove to make it clear he was the boss.
Any other day, I would’ve fought him on principle, but the hail came down harder, hammering the broken streets as though determined to flatten the neighborhood without needing the help of a tornado to do it.
I ran for it, my worn shoes slipping on the ice-slicked road. Once again, the bounty hunter snatched my arm, holding me upright until I regained my balance.
Fortunately for us, the cellar wasn’t far. While I wanted to sprint for the opening, I shuffled along so I wouldn’t fall on my ass and need even more help from the man determined to make a profit off me.
Once upon a time, a wooden door had covered the entry into the storm cellar, but the last twister to pass through had torn it off. The sensible never checked it as an option, but I’d learned to leave no stone—or hole—unturned since moving into the Alley. I jumped into the hole, grunted as I splashed into the mud below, and waded through the standing water to the slight rise that led to the second door. I shoved that open, gesturing for the bounty hunter to hurry his hot ass up.
He joined me in the mud, looking less than impressed with my choice of cellars. “Aren’t storm cellars supposed to have doors?”
I pointed deeper into the cellar. “There are two more ahead.”
“I stand corrected. Lead on, Miss Tamrin.”
Yep, the bounty hunter knew exactly who I was, although I would’ve preferred if he’d addressed me as Jade. What sort of bounty hunter addressed their victim so formally, anyway? If I had to share a cellar with someone out for my head, living or otherwise, I was of the opinion we needed to be on a first-name basis. “Got a name, or am I going to have to give you one?”
“More leading, less talking,” he ordered. He cast a glance over his shoulder up at the entry for the cellar, which would be a bitch to escape from after we rode out the storm. “They’re coming.”
I could tell; the ground shook, the wind screamed, and the hail graduated to chunks of ice capable of slamming through someone’s skull with terrifying ease. I shouldered open the door, grimacing at the creaking wood. I gave it another storm or two before it gave up the ghost, too.
Fortunately for me, the slope on the other side made it hard for water to penetrate the cellar, and the third door was crafted of good steel. I scrambled up the incline, waiting long enough for the bounty hunter to follow me through. “Close it,” I ordered.
He did as told, and the tunnel fell into darkness. The wood did little to buffer us from the sounds of the storm tearing through the neighborhood above. I made my way to the crest of the incline by feel, patting until I located the top concrete step. “There’s a set of concrete steps at the top. If you’re not careful, you’ll crack your forehead in the ceiling and fall. It’s a long way down.”
I already regretted my decision to be a good person, as it would lose me access to the best storm cellar I’d found in Tulsa. I’d have to search for a new hiding place and hope it was half as secure and safe from the weather.
Then again, I had to get away from my new unwanted friend first, which would be a challenge considering we’d have to share space until the storm ended.
It could take minutes, hours, or days.
I’d only stashed enough food and water for one person for one week, so if it took days, we’d be in trouble.
The bounty hunter joined me, and I eased down the steps once certain he wouldn’t take a lethal tumble to the steel door below. At the bottom, I felt around for the hatch wheel, grabbed hold, and turned until the door popped open.
Light spilled into the staircase from the luminescent moss I’d cultivated on the walls, barely bright enough to guide my way to the crank-powered lamp. I sat on the concrete floor and went to work charging the device. It’d only last for a few hours before I’d have to charge it again, but it would give me a chance to set up my home away from home.
The bounty hunter entered, closed the steel door, and whistled at my shelter. “I definitely stand corrected. Your file didn’t mention you have a good cellar. You’re listed as a vagrant.”
I scowled. Unless rich, wealthy, or a hell of a lot braver than I was, everyone in the Alley counted as a vagrant. We went where the storms were least likely to strike, although there were few places left safe from the weather’s fury.
If I’d been thinking, I would’ve taken him an extra block down the road to a shallower cellar, although I had no idea if it would survive through an entire swarm of twisters. Sighing, I kept cranking on the lamp. “Who isn’t a vagrant here?” I finally asked, aware of him waiting for an answer.
“Those who live in Asylum.”
Asylum. The rich, the famous, and the powerful received invitations from its lord and master, Benedict Mansfield. He’d bought the land rights beneath Tulsa’s city center, digging deep and converting the sandstone and the underlying limestone into habitable space. I’d given up figuring out how people could live underground long ago. They did, and everyone with a grain of sense and a desire to survive wanted to live in Asylum.
Hell would freeze over before average folks like me were welcomed down there.
I figured Mansfield had the right idea—as long as I ignored how many people would die without access to the underground sanctuary. But when I thought about it, I loathed the man for choosing who got to live and who got to die.
One day, I, along with everyone else uninvited to Asylum, would die to the swarms that grew in number and intensity each passing year.
“They can kiss my ass,” I announced, flipping the switch to turn on the lamp and properly illuminate the cellar. A mess of storage boxes and plastic water bottles littered the floor, and I regretted showing him my disorganized tendencies. “So, are you going to give me your name, or am I going to have to give you one?”
“I’m tempted to find out what sort of name a smart-assed woman like you would give me,” he replied. The lamp offered enough light for me to get a good look at his face.
His mouth curved into a grin.
It’d been so long since I’d gotten any action that a hot ass bounty hunter out for my head was giving me bad ideas. Damn it. I should’ve taken my chances with the swarm. At least I would’ve emerged from the storm either dead or with my sanity intact. There was nothing sane about what I desired to do with the man who wanted to turn me in for some quick cash. It involved a complete removal of our clothes and a good time.
Neither the clothing removal or the good time were on the agenda. Unfortunately for me, the cellar, for all it was deep and safe from even the angriest of twisters, didn’t come with a cold shower.
I really needed a cold shower and a stiff drink.
I blamed my unreasonable interest in the man on adrenaline, the aftermath of pure terror, and his sun-kissed skin, too dark to be American Caucasian but light enough I pegged him as an Italian, Greek, or some other flavor of Mediterranean European. “I’ll just call you Idiot for testing your luck with a swarm on the way, Idiot.”
“Sandro is preferable to Idiot, but I’ll give you that. It’s pretty idiotic to be outside during a swarm. Should I call you Queen Idiot? I wouldn’t have been out at all if you didn’t insist on taking morning strolls through the hot zone. Did you not pay attention to the forecast?”
His question pegged him as someone from Inner Tulsa or Asylum; nowhere else still had electricity enough to watch tv, use the internet, or otherwise pay attention to the forecast. I hadn’t touched a computer since I’d left the East and run to the Alley to avoid an arranged marriage. Had I known the Alley was just as bad as the rumors claimed, I might’ve thought twice about whatever asshole my parents wanted me to marry to meet their standards rather than mine.
With my luck, Sandro had been paid off by my parental assholes to drag me back to Buffalo, New York to do their bidding through marrying some twerp with better genes than personality.
“You think someone like me is welcome in Inner Tulsa?” I laughed at him, hung the lamp from the chain dangling from the ceiling, and went to work checking over the supplies. Everything was as I’d left it a few weeks prior when I’d prepared for the start of the tornado season.
The steel door and thick concrete walls dulled the storm’s fury to an unsettling rumble. Within an hour, if the swarm persisted, I’d feel the sound in my teeth and be headed straight for madness.
If it continued on for longer than that, I’d be tempted to smack my skull into the wall to make the sounds filtering down from above go away.
“Your work history is good and you’re reliable. You could find work in Inner Tulsa easily.” He looked me over, raising a brow. “All you’d have to do to be hired at a strip club is show up.”
“I’ll tell you what. You keep your bounty to yourself until the storm clears, and I won’t bust your balls for implying I’d make a good stripper.”
“I’m not implying. I’m telling you. You’d make one hell of a good stripper. A natural auburn vixen with a good complexion doesn’t come around every day. Hell, now that I’ve gotten my first real look at you, it’s no wonder you’re worth so much. You’re enough to tempt a man to forgo the cash to keep you.”
Had we been in the South, we’d both be at risk of spontaneous combustion. Then again, I wasn’t an elementalist.
I’d be a lot better off if I could convince metal to bend to my will. In a city in constant need of repair, everyone wanted a metal elementalist.
Then again, I didn’t want anyone knowing just what I could do, especially the hot ass bounty hunter ready to take me into his custody.
If he found out I was a witch on top of being a fully fledged shapeshifter, he’d be drooling all over me like I was a fresh bone up for grabs. I’d also crank his profits through the roof, as being a fully fledged shapeshifter would easily triple my bounty value, whatever it was. Being a witch on top of that?
I’d make him rich in a hurry.
“How about we just keep our hands to ourselves,” I suggested, doing my best to scowl without admiring the man’s lean, muscular body through his rain-soaked clothes. Any other day, I would’ve suggested he wear a coat to keep from getting cold when the storms kicked Tulsa in the face, but his shirt, when wet, did him a lot of justice.
“I’ll do you one better. Let’s call a truce. Once the storm blows over and it doesn’t look like another swarm will hit, I’ll give you a five minute head start. You escape me, you win this round. If I catch you today, you’ll come along quietly. I’d rather not have to hurt you to catch you.”
I could work with a five minute head start. I’d disappear so fast his head would spin, and he’d go home frustrated, alone, and without his quick profits. “Deal.”
The rumble escalated, and the lamp swayed on its chain, a warning one of the twisters passed directly overhead. Sandro frowned, his gaze locking on the light. “I wonder how much damage that swarm’s doing.”
People from all over the United States came to the Alley, and I’d joined everyone else in no longer caring where someone came from. He had an accent compared to the locals, but I couldn’t tell if he was deliberately hiding where he came from or if he always sounded like he could have lived anywhere in the world and magically fit in.
His question, however, told me a simple truth: Sandro hadn’t been in the Alley long. Those who’d survived through their first tornado season no longer cared about the damage ratings of a twister or a swarm.
It didn’t matter.
No matter how bad it got, like a weed in the cracks of a sidewalk, Tulsa endured.
* * *
Friday, May 1, 2043.
The twisters danced around Tulsa for over an hour before Mother Nature decided she’d toyed with us enough and moved on. As always, I’d wait at least thirty minutes, keeping an eye on my watch to make sure I didn’t emerge early, before I left the safety of the shelter. Mother Nature was a tricky bitch, and she liked adding lulls to her storms to lure out the unwitting.
She killed a lot of people that way, and I had no intentions of becoming the next victim in her little black book of corpses.
I spent the time checking the storage boxes and doing an inventory so I wouldn’t indulge in staring at the bounty hunter’s hot ass. He liked to pace, and every time something crashed overhead and made the cellar shake, his hand either went for the hilt of the sword hanging at his hip or reached for something over his shoulder. The shoulder habit baffled me.
What kind of weapon did he use that he strapped it to his back?
I wanted to know.
I blamed my second nature for my unhealthy interest in the man. Like cats, foxes were curious beasts, and I shifted often enough my animalistic nature brushed off at times. Winter was the worst; natural foxes had aggressive breeding instincts, and I’d learned early I needed to avoid shifting during peak mating season, as men became far too interesting for my sanity.
Some fox shifters went mad during the winter unless married—and married fox shifters were happy, insatiable fox shifters during the coldest months of the year.
“You’re well stocked for a vagrant.”
I flattened my ears. “Well, no thanks to you, I’ll have to ditch this cellar.”
“I’ll cut you another deal, then. I’ll stay hushed about your cellar, but if we happen to be in these parts during another blow, you share. If you’re in here, you won’t be a fair target, and I’ll always give you five minutes after the storm ends. That fair?”
My brows rose. “What sort of bounty hunter are you?”
“An ethical one.”
I pinched myself. It hurt. I dug out the temperature monitor from one of the crates, which also had a carbon dioxide monitor. After checking the battery, I turned it on. According to the device, the carbon dioxide levels were higher than I liked, an indication the ventilation tubes above had gotten blocked off. I could fix it, given time and the snake drill I’d scored as salvage last storm season.
Eliminating a dream or hallucination, I turned off the detector, put it away, and considered the bounty hunter. “Since when have there been ethical bounty hunters?”
“Since I decided to become a bounty hunter.”
Why did hot men always have overly robust egos? I’d have my chance to pop his bubble soon enough. I just had to play along until it was time for me to make my break. “All right. This is neutral ground, and I get a head start. Five minutes. And you can count those minutes with a watch.”
“Don’t trust me to count?” he asked, his tone amused.
“Only if you count Mississippis and confirm the five minutes with a watch. That’s a lot of Mississippis you’d have to count.”
“What is the going rate for a Mississippi nowadays?
“Approximately a second each, if you say it right and don’t cheat.” I’d checked against a stopwatch once, startled to discover the method was fairly close to an actual second. “That would be three hundred Mississippis you’d have to go through. You’ll probably go mad trying to count them after a hundred.”
“That would help your cause a little, if I were to go mad counting to three hundred. Fortunately for you, I can count that high, and I’m a patient man. Usually. I’ll enjoy catching you. It’s so rare bounty hunting work is fun. You’re worth a pretty penny.”
“If you’re trying to convince me you’ll keep your word about the five minutes, you’re not doing a good job of it.”
“Run, and I’ll prove it to you.”
I listened again to make certain the storm wasn’t gearing up to take another swipe at Tulsa. When it seemed quiet, I nodded. “Close the door behind you.”
“Always. While a bounty hunter, I am a gentleman.”
With his ego, which might be bigger than the Mississippi during the spring thaw, I believed he thought he was a gentleman. “And why is a gentleman working as a bounty hunter?”
Sandro looked me over. “To test my ethics, apparently. I’ll have to decide if I keep you after I catch you.”
“I’m not up for sale.”
“Your bounty says otherwise, and vixens are always in high demand. Tell yourself otherwise if it makes you feel better about the situation, but I give it a week before you go to the highest bidder—two weeks at most. That could work out. I could claim your bounty but spend that windfall to buy you. You might just be worth your price tag. For some reason, I expect you’ll give me the slip a time or two before I get you to where I can claim your bounty. Keep on your toes, Miss Tamrin. You’re as good as bought and sold as it is, and if you’re smart, you’ll figure out you’re safer with me than the others after you.”
I liked to think of myself as smart, and I had contacts in high places; it would take a trip into Asylum, but I’d get down to the bottom of the bounty on me. While I was at it, I’d ask around and figure out exactly when the United States had gone back to its roots and traded in human lives. I figured my ears and tail played a part.
What didn’t look quite human no longer counted as human. What no longer counted as human could be bought and sold without remorse. Worse, the numbers of those who no longer counted as human grew a little each day. I gave it a few years before most women, outside of the wealthy and influential, joined the club of those up for sale.
Some days, I really questioned why I didn’t just shift into a fox and stay that way. Foxes led simple lives.
They also lived short lives.
That likely had something to do with my unwillingness to live as an animal exclusively.
Shaking my head, I restored everything in the shelter and headed for the door, pointing at the light. “Turn that off and set it near the hatch before you leave. Turn the wheel one full revolution to close it; you’ll feel it click.”
“Understood. I’ll see you very soon.”
According to his amused tone, he expected to catch me right away.
He had a lot to learn about me, and I’d enjoy taunting him the next time we crossed paths. I scrambled out of the shelter and up the concrete steps, grimacing when I reached the top and discovered the second level had completely flooded. If I wanted to use the cellar again, I’d have to salvage a pump and drain the entire damned thing.
Life needed to give me a break—and not the type that resulted in a cast and a long recovery time.
The water level made climbing out of the cellar entrance interesting, but I managed after digging a few hand and foot holds for myself. It cost me valuable time, but I didn’t need a lot of time once I got on the move. I sprinted a block away, climbed onto some of the new rubble, most of it from the shacks the twisters had tossed around during their temper tantrum. The rain fell in sheets, which would do a good job of hiding my tracks.
As always, shifting hurt, especially when I didn’t have time to ease into my new form.
My fur grew in first, stabbing through my skin. I bled, another unfortunate reality of being a full shifter; someone who changed forms too often could bleed out. I guessed I could shift six times in a day before I faced certain death, but I tried to avoid shifting more than three times.
I liked living too much to risk it.
My clothes and everything I carried shifted with me, a phenomena I didn’t understand but refused to question. Most left their clothes torn and bloodied on the ground around them. Once I made distance, I’d stop, shift again, and focus on compressing my body; when in a hurry, the laws of equivalent exchange applied, and a fox weighing in at well over a hundred pounds drew attention.
If anyone spotted me, they’d remember me, a mastiff-sized fox.
With luck, no one would notice me, and I’d find a safe place to finish shifting properly. Unwilling to find out if Sandro counted all of his Mississippis, I kept one eye on the sky and headed towards Inner Tulsa, one of the few places in the area the storms usually bypassed. The rise in elevation likely had something to do with that. When Benedict Mansfield had begun construction of Asylum, he’d picked the highest ground as the heart of his underground city. Each year, the storms drew closer, but I figured Inner Tulsa had a few years of life left in it before Mother Nature wiped it off the map, too.
In addition to more wreckage strewn over the streets, I found four fresh bodies in the time it took me to reach the trashed neighborhood skirting Inner Tulsa, where debris often rained down but tornadoes rarely ventured.
Chunks of wood littered the streets along with hail, so thick it resembled snow.
For a rare change, no one had been lobbed into Inner Tulsa as a gruesome reminder Mother Nature didn’t give a shit about humanity. The lack of curious spectators eyeballing the passing storm worried me—and warned me the storm was likely revving up for another show.
Someone needed to set Mother Nature straight and tell her to give the Alley a break already.
Deep in the heart of Inner Tulsa, a tornado siren wailed, and I halted long enough to listen while regarding the dark sky warily. I supposed the swarm had moved north to visit another neighborhood—one closer to the city’s heart, which people still cared about.
While the clouds remained an ominous green and the wind howled, I couldn’t spot a single funnel reaching for the ground.
Shaking my head, I went in search of one of the elusive sewer covers that hid something other than the city’s sanitation system: an illegal entrance into Asylum, one of the few safe places left in the Alley.
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RJ Blain suffers from a Moleskine journal obsession, a pen fixation, and a terrible tendency to pun without warning. In her spare time, she daydreams about being a spy. Her contingency plan involves tying her best of enemies to spinning wheels and quoting James Bond villains until satisfied. Author links: https://www.thesneakykittycritic.com/ https://twitter.com/RJ_Blain https://www.facebook.com/rjblain.author/ https://www.instagram.com/rj.blain/ https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7190903.R_J_Blain https://www.bookbub.com/authors/rj-blain